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Identification of metrics to monitor salt marsh integrity on National Wildlife Refuges in relation to conservation and management objectives

January 1, 2013

Executive Summary

Most salt marshes in the US have been degraded by human activities, and threats from physical alterations, surrounding land-use, species invasions, and global climate change persist. Salt marshes are unique and highly productive ecosystems with high intrinsic value to wildlife, and many National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) have been established in coastal areas to protect large tracts of salt marsh and wetland-dependent species. Various management practices are employed routinely on coastal NWRs to restore and enhance marsh integrity and ensure ecosystem sustainability. Prioritizing NWR salt marshes for application of management actions and choosing among multiple management options requires scientifically-based methods for assessing marsh condition.

Monitoring is integral to structured decision-making (SDM), a formal process for decomposing a decision into its essential elements. Within a natural resource context, SDM involves identifying management objectives, alternative management actions, and expected management outcomes. The core of SDM is a set of criteria for measuring system performance and evaluating management responses. Therefore, use of SDM to frame natural resource decisions leads to logical selection of monitoring attributes that are linked explicitly to management needs.

We used SDM to guide selection of variables for monitoring the ecological integrity of salt marshes within the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). Our objectives were to identify indicators of salt marsh integrity that are effective across large geographic regions, responsive to a wide range of threats, and feasible to implement within funding and staffing constraints of the NWRS. In April, 2008, we engaged interdisciplinary experts in a week-long rapid prototyping SDM workshop to define the essential elements of salt marsh management decisions on refuges throughout the northeastern, southwestern, and northwestern US, corresponding to respective Regions 5, 2, and 1 of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Through this process we identified measurable attributes for monitoring salt marsh ecosystems that are integrated into conservation practice and target management objectives.

The following salt marsh attributes were identified through the SDM process either for describing state condition to determine management needs or for evaluating the achievement of management objectives: historical condition and geomorphic setting; ditch density; surrounding land use; ratio of open water area to vegetation area; rate of pesticide application; environmental contaminant concentration; change in marsh surface elevation relative to sea level rise; tidal range and groundwater level; surface topography; salinity; and species composition and abundance of vegetation, invasive species, invertebrates, nekton, and breeding and wintering birds.

The identified attributes were too broadly defined to serve as operational monitoring variables. Therefore, we tested specific metrics for quantifying most of these attributes in summers of 2008 and 2009. The first four attributes in the above list can be characterized by office-based analysis of existing GIS data layers. The remaining attributes require field-based methods for assessment. We were forced to exclude a small number of attributes from field tests due to inconsistent data (pesticide application rate, environmental contaminant concentrations) or requirements that exceeded the scope of this project (change in marsh surface elevation; surface topography; benthic invertebrates; wintering birds). We evaluated potential metrics for evaluating all remaining field attributes.

In partnership with NWRS biologists, we tested rapid versus intensive metrics for monitoring field attributes (tidal range and groundwater level; marsh surface elevation; salinity; and species composition and abundance of vegetation, invasive species, nekton, and breeding birds) at coastal refuges throughout FWS Region 5. Seven refuges participated in metric testing in 2008: Rachel Carson (ME), Parker River (MA), Wertheim (NY), E. B. Forsythe (NJ), Bombay Hook (DE), Prime Hook (DE), and Eastern Shore of Virginia Complex (VA). These seven and two additional refuges participated in metric testing in 2009: Rhode Island Complex (RI) and Stewart B. McKinney (CT). We based all field metrics on existing protocols for salt marsh assessment. Sampling locations were determined randomly within delineated marsh study units (MSUs) at each refuge. Detailed field methods are provided in appendices to this report.

Measurements for individual metrics were averaged across samples within MSUs during each year of sampling. Each year, correlation or regression analysis was conducted on average measurements across MSUs within each attribute set to identify redundant metrics. Statistical redundancy between a pair of metrics within an attribute set (i.e., correlation or regression slopes with p-values < 0.05) was considered justification for eliminating one of the pair from the regional set of monitoring metrics. Decisions regarding metric elimination versus retention were based on feasibility of monitoring, considering such factors as sampling time, resources required, and potential for regional standardization in implementation.

The result of these tests is a reduced suite of monitoring metrics that targets NWRS management decisions and is practicable for implementing on a regional scale. Based on these tests, we recommend the following list of metrics for monitoring integrity of NWRS salt marshes (marsh attribute category is in parentheses): (historical condition and geomorphic setting) position of marsh in the landscape, marsh shape, degree of fill and/or fragmentation, degree of tidal flushing, amount of aquatic edge; (ditch density) ranking of ditch density from none to severe; (surrounding land use) relative proportion of agricultural land in a 150-m buffer around the marsh, relative proportion of natural land in a 150-m buffer around the marsh, relative proportion of natural land in a 1-km buffer around the marsh; (ratio of open water area to vegetation area) ratio of open water to emergent herbaceous wetlands within the marsh; (marsh surface elevation) elevation referenced to NAVD88 in a representative area of the marsh; (tidal range and groundwater level) percent of time the marsh surface is flooded during deployment of a continuous water-level monitor at a representative marsh location, mean depth of surface flooding as measured by a continuous water-level monitor at a representative location; (salinity) salinity measured in surface water; (vegetation community) vegetation species richness using the point-intercept method in 100-m diameter survey plots, percent cover of various marsh community types within 100-m diameter survey plots; (invasive species abundance) percent cover of invasive plant species measured using the point-intercept method in 100-m diameter survey plots; (nekton community) nekton density, nekton species richness, length of Fundulus heteroclitus; (breeding bird community) abundance of Willets counted per point during standard call-broadcast surveys, summed abundance of tidal marsh obligate species (Clapper Rail, Willet, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Seaside Sparrow) counted per point during standard call-broadcast surveys. Metrics describing the historical condition, geomorphic setting, and broad landscape features can be assessed using existing GIS databases. Our results support use of rapid methods to assess the majority of field metrics; only those used to describe the nekton community must be measured using intensive methods (throw traps or ditch nets, dependant on habitat configuration).

Implementation of these metrics for quantitative assessment of NWRS salt marsh integrity in FWS Region 5 requires developing sampling designs for each refuge. Additionally, it is important to determine how the monitoring information will be used within a management context. SDM should be used to complete the analysis of salt marsh management decisions. The next steps would involve 1) prioritizing and weighting the management objectives; 2) predicting responses to individual management actions in terms of objectives and metrics; 3) using multiattribute utility theory to convert all measurable attributes to a common utility scale; 4) determining the total management benefit of each action by summing utilities across objectives; and 5) maximizing the total management benefits within cost constraints for each refuge. This process would allow the optimum management decisions for NWRS salt marshes to be selected and implemented based directly on monitoring data and current understanding of marsh responses to management actions. Monitoring the outcome of management actions would then allow new monitoring data to be incorporated into subsequent decisions.